On July 12, the U.S. District Court of Appeals struck down an Environmental Protection Agency initiative from 2011. The measure would have delayed the formation of a regulating body that oversees all aspects of biomass fuel production (namely the evaluation and reduction of carbon emissions) and exempted the industry from standards set in place by the Clean Air Act until 2014.
The word biomass gets thrown around a lot lately. In the race for clean, renewable energy sources, organic waste materials seem as promising a candidate as any. However, the question of whether or not to regulate biomass fuel production has ignited a debate between green advocates and — well, other green advocates, albeit ones with slightly more relaxed standards when it comes to emissions control.
The latest arguments have focused on biomass derived from forest growth: tree waste, understory debris, and other renewable materials that aren’t essential to the forest ecosystem. Many eco-friendly politicos, namely Sen. Jeff Merkley [D-Ore.], have backed forest biomass as a fairly optimal alternative to fossil fuels. “Oregon is poised to grow into a world leader in biomass energy production,” Merkley stated in a 2011 memo issued after the EPA initiative was passed. “Today’s decision marks a victory for rural Oregon, timber communities, and the future of the industry in our state. Increased production and use of home-grown, American biomass energy will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and create jobs here in Oregon.”
Merkley’s not alone. As The Economist reported in a recent article titled, ‘Wood: The Fuel of the Future’, European citizens — namely residents of Germany, Poland, Finland, and other heavily forested, temperate countries — have embraced the idea of using timber as a renewable energy source. The widespread popularity is based on a notion that seems plainly logical: “If wood used in a power station comes from properly managed forests, then the carbon that billows out of the chimney can be offset by the carbon that is captured and stored in newly planted trees,” the article states.
The author adds: “Wood can be carbon-neutral. Whether it actually turns out to be is a different matter.” And therein lies the ‘burning’ question: just how much cleaner is the biomass industry?
Many environmental scientists and green advocates certainly seem skeptical — or at least, they’ll be the first to argue that not enough research has been done to draw any substantial conclusions. “Burning trees to generate electricity is dangerous, polluting, and ought to be limited to protect people and the environment,” stated Kevin Bundy, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, in a statement issued after last week’s decision. “This important decision will reduce respiratory ailments, protect forests and help ensure a healthier, more livable climate.”
“Today’s ruling upholds EPA’s authority to regulate pollution that drives climate change. The court’s decision is grounded in an understanding that the science shows that biomass fuels, including tree-burning, can make climate disruption worse,” said Ann Weeks, legal director of the Clean Air Task Force, in the same statement.
For those looking to cast blame for this setback, the EPA aren’t necessarily the bad guys here. Soom after the 2011 decision was announced, the agency released a statement stating that delaying the formation of a regulatory body was (more or less) following protocol; if a project demands further research, then three years is the standard deferral to allow for the necessary evaluations to be performed. “The purpose… is to give the EPA time to effectuate a detailed examination of the science associated with biogenic CO2 emissions and to consider the technical issues that the agency must resolve in order to account for biogenic CO2 emissions in ways that are scientifically sound and also manageable in practice.”
When you think about it, there aren’t any bad guys in this fight. On one side, the ecologically-minded are urging us to be cautious as we invest time, manpower, and a lot of money into biomass energy production. In the other corner, we have state politicians who see a lot of environmental (and economic) potential in our country’s growing forest biomass industry. Either way, movers and shakers in the alternative fuel movement are reducing our dependence on fossil fuels just a little bit more each day. So what does that mean for us? It means we’re slowly but surely solving the gas crisis, lowering emissions, and healing the planet after centuries of abuse and neglect.
That said, The Huffington Post reported on Monday that the U.S. District Court of Appeals has not set an official timetable for the EPA to follow. And since the 2011 initiative called for a three-year delay, that means last week’s court decision will be moot unless the EPA establishes a fully functional regulatory body for biomass production in less than 18 months.
So the moral of the story is: We’re making great strides in the realm of alternative fuel… but otherwise, it’s business and politics as usual.